By Sahar Adatia and Jimmy Singh.
It’s a custom on the road that’s quintessentially Australian: You’re driving and suddenly spot an unmarked cop car parked roadside carrying out speed checks, so instinctively, you flash your headlights to warn oncoming drivers that the police are up ahead.
It seems normal – and undoubtedly true to the Aussie spirit of comradery.
But is this gesture of goodwill actually illegal?
And is helping out your fellow driver in this way going to land you a fine?
Let’s see what the law in NSW has to say…
So Why Do Many Motorists Uphold the Tradition of Flashing their Headlights?
Despite the prospect of being slapped with a fine, it seems that many road users continue to uphold the tradition of flashing their headlights to warn drivers due to the widely held belief that speed cameras are significantly just a means of raising revenue.
Indeed, in NSW, the state government rakes huge sums of cash from due to speed cameras, with several Sydney streets minting dollars in the millions.
In fact, between September 2017 – September 2018, it was revealed that the state’s most notorious speed camera, which faces north on the Eastern Distributor northbound at Darlinghurst, raised a monstrous $4,561,403.
Following closely, the speed camera facing east on George Street in Haymarket pulled in a mammoth $4,104,456.
Next in line, both Stacey Street in Bankstown, and Elizabeth Street in Sydney’s CBD returned more than $3 million.
All the while, it turns out that between January and September 2018, of all speed and red-light cameras across NSW, 442,720 motorists were fined, and this was at an average of $314 for each offence.
Speeding fines start at $119 for motorists driving less that 10km/h over the speed limit.
The fine for running a red light is $448 and the loss of three demerit points.
Click here for an outline of the penalties for speeding in NSW and how to avoid a demerit point suspension of your driver licence.
What does the Law in NSW Say About Flashing Lights to Warn Motorists?
In NSW, there is no specific road rule that states you are not allowed to flash your headlights to warn other motorists that the police are looming ahead.
A driver will face a maximum penalty of up to $2,200 fine for driving on a road with the high-beam headlights on if (Rule 218(1) Road Rules 2014):
- There is another vehicle in front, travelling in the same direction within 200 metres; or
- There is another oncoming vehicle within 200 metres.
However, a driver is allowed to switch on the high-beam headlights for a brief moment immediately before overtaking a vehicle (Rule 218(2) Road Rules 2014).
The maximum penalty of $2,200 fine only applies if a Magistrate in the Local Court determines the case on a finding of guilt.
Practically, a police officer can and usually will give an on-the-spot fine (penalty notice) of $112 to a driver caught breaching this rule. By paying the fine the driver will also incur 1 demerit point. But upon paying this fine, the matter is put to an end.
However, a person issued with a fine for this can dispute it by electing to take the matter to court.
If it is court-elected, the driver will be required to attend court without paying the fine. He/she will then be required to either enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.
The charge will be dismissed if the court returns a verdict of not guilty.
If the driver is found guilty or pleads guilty in court, the Magistrate has the discretion to impose a fine of up to $2,200- although the maximum penalty is rarely imposed and usually reserved only for the most serious offenders.
The Magistrate also has the discretion to impose a section 10 dismissal which is a non-conviction order dismissing the charge even after a plea of guilty is entered. This will result in no demerit points being incurred, putting an end to the case.
It is therefore possible to receive an infringement for breaching this rule while in the process of warning a fellow driver of a speed trap ahead.
In addition, a driver will face a maximum penalty of up to $2,200 fine if caught using any light fitted in the vehicle to dazzle (or likely to dazzle) another road user (Rule 219 Road Rules 2014 (NSW)).
The maximum fine of $2,200 is only applicable if the matter is dealt with by a Magistrate in the Local Court via taking the matter to court. Breaching this road rule attracts a penalty notice (on-the-spot fine) of $112 with one demerit point.
Once again, you could receive an infringement if a police officer was to allege that while you were warning another driver by flashing your lights, you were also likely to “dazzle” them.
Is Flashing Vehicle Headlights Encouraging Bad Driver Behaviour?
According to South West Police officer-in-charge Sergeant Craig Clarke, drivers continuing to flash their headlights to warn other road users of looming police, even though not illegal, are encouraging bad driver behaviour.
Expressing his frustration with such drivers, the uppermost traffic officer has said that it is “changing driver behaviour”.
“People are then doing the right thing for 30 seconds and there are no consequences to people’s actions,” Sergeant Clarke said.
Nonetheless, he also warned that it is at police discretion to book drivers if they do “dazzle” others by flashing their lights.
Sergeant Clarke’s sentiment was also backed up by the Police Commissioner’s office, with a spokeswoman saying the commissioner would not support drivers flashing lights.
“While there is no specific offence committed in flashing lights to oncoming motorists to warn of a speed camera, police would generally warn motorists not to do this as it may unnecessarily distract other drivers, especially at night,” the spokeswoman said.
“There is an offence of hindering police where it can be proved that the activity has impacted on the ability of police to do their job.
“In the case of flashing lights at oncoming traffic to warn of a speed camera…the offence would be extremely difficult to prove.”
To Flash, or Not to Flash?
So, it seems that it is not illegal to warn your fellow road users about the presence of an imminent speed camera or undercover police by flashing your headlights.
Nonetheless, you should be cautious about whether you choose to do so because “dazzling” other drivers or flashing your high-beams to an oncoming vehicle within 200 metres may still attract a fine.
Contact our office 24/7 on (02) 8606 2218. We have experienced traffic lawyers in Sydney city, Parramatta and 6 other locations across New South Wales.